Arachnophobia (1990) PICK

The Avengers (2012) PICK

Dark Shadows (2012) PASS

We Have a Pope [Habemus Papam] (2012) PASS

New on home video, the summer’s biggest blockbuster is a rollicking and surprisingly decent superhero saga with plenty of action, wit and humor, but fairly mild language and no sexual content.

The Avengers is the triumphant culmination of Marvel’s carefully developed big-screen universe, with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and others joining forces to stave off an extraterrestrial invasion and save the world.

As important as the main conflict is the tension between Iron Man’s "Me Generation" egocentrism and Captain America’s "Greatest Generation" ethic of self-sacrifice — a tension that ultimately goads Iron Man into an unwonted act of heroism. Watch for a nifty moment between Loki and a dignified older gentleman in Stuttgart — and a pretty terrific line from Captain America about "only one God."

Also new on home video, We Have a Pope [Habemus Papam] has a name and a pedigree — from provocative Italian director Nanni Moretti — that suggests either a ham-fisted attack on the Church or an insightful exploration. Curiously, it’s neither. Instead, it’s a gentle but timid what-if tale about a newly elected pope who suffers a panic attack and decides that he can’t do the job. Unfortunately, not only does the movie have very little idea how to proceed from there, neither do any of the characters.

Moretti alternates between light absurdism and pathos, but there’s no room for prayer or spirituality. Nobody makes any of the obvious suggestions, and the belated resolution unfolds in the worst possible way. It’s not a disrespectful or offensive film, only a disappointing, uninteresting one.

Another movie that seems not to know what it wants to be when it grows up, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows is based on the 1960s/1970s gothic soap opera, but succeeds neither as homage nor as campy satire. The dangerous charm of Barnabas Collins, the original vampire heartthrob, is obliterated by Depp’s fuddled fish-out-of-water mugging. Burton and Depp enjoyed the original series as kids; why the graphic bloodletting and sexual content?

A better Halloween pick: Making its Blu-ray debut, Arachnophobia is a sneakily charming and endearing thriller/horror movie that succeeds where Hitchcock’s The Birds arguably failed: It takes a preposterous premise of collective animal-kingdom menace and builds genuine suspense and fun out of it.

Part of the appeal is the focus (like Jaws, perhaps reflecting director Frank Marshall’s collaboration with Spielberg) on a likable underdog outsider in a small town, Jeff Daniels’ family physician. Naturally, he’s as afraid of spiders as Indiana Jones is of snakes.


Content Advisory: Arachnophobia: Much creepy-crawly suspense and menace; graphic shots of spider bites and dead bodies; a brief shower sequence (nothing explicit); brief language. The Avengers: Much intense action violence and mayhem; limited cursing and crass language; a couple of suggestive references. Both teens and up.